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Biotic interactions affect the elevational ranges of high‐latitude plant species

Roux, Peter C. le, Virtanen, Risto, Heikkinen, Risto K., Luoto, Miska
Ecography 2012 v.35 no.11 pp. 1048-1056
Bryopsida, biogeography, latitude, lichens, models, niches, planting, prediction, probability, Finland, Norway
Ecological theory suggests that positive plant–plant interactions can extend species distributions into areas that would otherwise be unfavourable. However, few studies have tested this hypothesis, and none have explicitly examined the associated prediction that inter‐specific interactions between plants may broaden species altitudinal distributions. Here we test this prediction, using fine‐scale species distribution data for 156 bryophytes, lichens and vascular plants spanning a 900 m elevational gradient in north‐western Finland and Norway, analysed with a niche modelling approach. Species altitudinal ranges of all three groups of plants were more accurately predicted when including the cover of any of the 24 most wide‐spread and abundant species (‘dominants’) than when using abiotic variables alone, emphasizing the importance of including relevant biotic predictors in species distribution models. Half of the models showed that species had very low probabilities of occurrence under high cover of dominants, suggesting a strong negative impact of dominant species. Similarly, for species that are predicted to occur irrespective of dominant species cover, 62% of models showed narrower species altitudinal distributions when occurring under high dominant cover, with contractions of species’ lower and upper elevational limits being common. Nonetheless, high cover of dominant species was associated with upslope range extension in 43 species, and a net range expansion in nearly 10% of all models. Species distributional responses to dominants were only weakly related to species traits, with larger range contractions associated with arctic‐alpine dominants. Therefore, dominant species appear to exert a strong influence on the elevational distribution of other species in high latitude environments.